Newborn babies have an inbuilt ability to pick out words at just three
days old, a study by researchers in Britain, France and Italy revealed on Tuesday.
The study, funded by the European Research Council, is a collaboration between scientists at the International
School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Italy, the Neurospin Centre in France, the University of Liverpool
and The University of Manchester.
The international team of researchers discovered two mechanisms in three-day-old infants, which give them
the skills to pick out words in a stream of sounds.
They played to the infants a three and a half minute audio clip in which four meaningless words were buried
in a stream of syllables.
Using a painless technique called Near-Infrared Spectroscopy which shines light into the brain; they were able
to measure how much was absorbed, telling them which parts of the brain were active.
Dr Alissa Ferry from University of Manchester, said “the discovery provides key insight into first step to learning
She explained that one of the mechanisms discovered by the team was known as prosody, the melody of language,
which allowed humans to recognise when a word start and stop.
Other researchers called the statistics of language as how people compute the frequency when sounds in a word
come together, saying “we think this study highlights how sentient newborn babies really are and how much
information they are absorbing.
“That’s quite important for new parents and gives them some insight into how their baby is listening to them.”
Dr Ana Flò of Neurospin said: “language is incredibly complicated and this study is about understanding how
infants try to make sense of it when they first hear it.
“We often think of language as being made up of words, but words often blur together when we talk.
“So, one of the first steps to learn language is to pick out the words.
“Our study shows that at just three days old, without understanding what it means, babies can
pick out individual words from speech.
“And we have identified two important tools that we are almost certainly born with, that gives them the
ability to do this.”
Dr Perrine Brusini of University of Liverpool, said: “we had the infants listen to individual words and
found that their brains responded differently to the words that they heard than to slightly different words.
“This shows that even from birth, infants can pick out individual words from language.”